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As Dr Dušan Spasojević writes in his PSR Article Two and a Half Crises: Serbian Institutional Design as the Cause of Democratic Declines: “On 5 October 2000, hundreds of thousands gathered in front of the Serbian parliament to pressure President Slobodan Milošević to accept the victory of the opposition candidate Vojislav Koštunica. Serbia was about to start its democratic transition after 10 years of Milošević’s authoritarian rule. Exactly 20 years later, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić announced that his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) would form the government after successful negotiation with coalition partners. The SNS won 188 of 250 MPs. Future coalition partners added an additional 56 MPs to the majority, leaving only six MPs in the opposition. There are no other opposition representatives in the parliament because they boycotted the elections due to a lack of conditions for a free and fair process. It seems like a wasted 20 years.” In this interview, Dr Spasojević describes major challenges to the political system in Serbia.
PSR: How would you characterise the current political regime in Serbia?
Dr Dušan Spasojević: The current regime in Serbia can be described as semi-presidentialism or premier-presidentialism; however, due to strong authoritarian tendencies in the last years (after 2016) and the general decline of democratic standards, the regime has become more personalised and presidentialized. This change’s fundamental mechanism is based on the fact that Aleksandar Vučić simultaneously occupies the position of the state and party president position. Furthermore, his party, the SNS, is a predominant party with divided, atomised, and marginalised opposition. On top of that, weak institutions, especially those that should produce checks and balances and executive oversight, cannot contain the power of the most popular leader. Therefore, the actual power is not in the hands of Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who should be the key figure according to the constitution, but in Vučić hands, and they are not even trying to hide it. Vučić is perceived and presented as the decision maker, and he often directly orders ministries what to do and provides solutions.
What unique features does this version of semi-presidentialism have?
Serbia had a long tradition of semi-presidentialism, at least for post-communist state standards, as it was introduced at the beginning of the transition and party pluralism. The key features were not changed over time, although the president’s position is slightly weaker in the new constitution (2006), compared to the first one (1990). The interesting dynamic comes from the intersection between political and electoral systems – Serbia uses proportional representation with only one electoral district and no preferential voting (closed lists system), potentially leading to the centralization of parties and the dominance of party oligarchies. Therefore, the political system outcome depends on the balance between the parties and can have three different outcomes: presidential, prime-ministerial, and cohabitation. In the period after the fall of Milošević, the balance of power between leading parties (Democratic Party- DS and Democratic party of Serbia – DSS) fulfilled the potential of both the political and electoral systems. However, once the balance was lost, it created incentives for presidentialization, which in the Serbian case also meant autocratization. Of course, an important part of every new democracy is informal rules, filling the voids left by unfinished institutions and enabling the political elite to bend the rules in their favour.
The concentration of power in the hands of the state president led to a democratic backslide. It resulted from several years of decline and pressure on democratic institutions.
You claim that “Serbia had two major democratic crises (1990–2000 and 2016–2020) and one shorter but notable decline (2010–2012)”. Can you think about any general drivers that caused these breakdowns?
The two main crises are different by their cause – the first one, in the nineties, is mostly a consequence of an unfinished transition – Milošević used preemptive reform to usurp the power and then shaped institutions, including the political and electoral system, to maximize his gains. For Milošević, the institutional framework was endogen, but he shaped his opposition to some extent by these rules. The second crisis is the result of autocratization under Aleksandar Vučić, and we can compare this to a decline (2010-2012) under Boris Tadić. In both cases, a single party has key positions – the prime minister and president; in both cases, the party president becomes the key political figure and starts to centralize power. In the case of Boris Tadić, his Democratic party never reached predominant status and the opposition and coalition partners were strong enough to counterbalance. Regardless, there were significant elements of democratic backslide during that period, although the elections remained competitive, free and fair. In the case of Vučić and the SNS, as soon as the party started to win half of the votes (since 2014), it became the predominant actor, without a proper challenger. Another difference between Tadić and Vučić is that Tadić was also challenged by his own – especially from civil society, elite and academic circles that were perceived as his strongholds, which was enough to damage his electoral success.
Let’s discuss the second crisis (2016–2020) and the current political situation under President Aleksandar Vučić. You claim that Serbia is endangered by a shift to competitive authoritarianism. What sparked this breakdown, what influenced its development and how’s the situation after 2020?
This shift seems to have been completed – Levitsky and Way classified Serbia as competitive authoritarianism again, the same as during the Milošević regime. Freedom house and V Dem also see Serbia as a flawed, hybrid democracy. The concentration of power in the hands of the state president led to a democratic backslide. It resulted from several years of decline and pressure on democratic institutions. Even weak and new democracies can not be defeated easily; in Serbia, it took five years, until the presidential elections in 2017, to gain control over key institutions, including oversight and regulatory bodies. This means that power under the control of an autocrat is not only in formal institutions but also in those of ‘secondary’ importance. In other words, the space for the opposition or civil society is constantly shrinking. Post-2020 did not change much as Covid19 outbreak enhanced authoritarian tendencies, but also provided some space for the opposition.
Of course, Vučić is not Milošević and the old regime has not return in full power. Levitsky and Way called this new competitive authoritarianism – the regime that has been adapted to a new time, with nuanced and more careful autocratization. For example, there is no censorship or police harassment of the journalists and media; a new competitive authoritarian regime will buy problematic outlets or invest funds in others and made it unfair competition for market income. Alternatively, they will make some other indirect pressure. The international landscape has also been changed – in contrast to the conflictual relations of an international community with Milošević, current Serbian leadership remains formally pro-EU and receives support for their cooperation during the Kosovo talks or migrant crisis. The Russian aggression on Ukraine changed the situation to some extent and opened some options for the entire western Balkans – the pressure from the outside is growing, but the carrot is also getting more significant. However, it is yet unclear if there can be a balance between a realistic approach in foreign relations and a necessity for the democratization of Serbia and other regional countries.
What were the societal responses to these crises? What are the major manifestations o social discontent?
Serbia has a proud history of democratic struggle – it lasted a decade, but people never give up, even when faced with an increasingly repressive regime. However, we now live in a different world. It seems that autocratization does not produce discontent that can be easily politically articulated. In the last ten years, there were five protests waves, none of which had crucial results. Those were protests against regime violence, students and environmental protest, covid19 protests, and protests against Belgarde Waterfront Project. All of them lasted for a few weeks, but had so significant consequences. Of course, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party significantly influences the media system. It reduces the time available for the opposition and protests, but still there are enough media outlets available for alternative voices.
Environmental issues drove the last large protests, but the regime efficiently accepted the demands and reduced the damage. Some green parties used the opportunity and entered the parliament in 2022, but it can not be a key issue against the SNS. Also, many environmental activists perceive themselves as non-political and create distance between the movement and formal political parties. This is a common characteristic of protest politics in Serbia, and it reflects a lack of trust in parties and politicians.
Serbia has a proud history of democratic struggle – it lasted a decade, but people never give up, even when faced with an increasingly repressive regime.
On the other hand: what is the reasoning of Vučić’s supporters?
Vučić supporters are more conservative and authoritarian part of Serbian society and, therefore, less interested in the rule of law or democracy between the elections. They see European Union as a community of wealthy nations, not a community gathered around values. Recent events, such as Brexit or the success of euro-sceptic leaders like Orban or Meloni, fortified these beliefs. So, as long as Vučić performs decently in economic terms and does not lead the country into conflicts with the west, they are satisfied. Also, the important part is related to national issues, like Kosovo or the Republic of Srpska, which trump the rule of law or media freedom for most SNS voters. Of course, the SNS domination in the media sphere prevents these views from being challenged, and most voters are subject to strong one-way propaganda.
Are there, in your opinion, any reforms or safety mechanisms that would prevent authoritarian shifts in the future?
No, I don’t believe that there can be mechanisms that can protect democracy under intense illiberal pressure if the citizens are not willing to defend it or punish the autocratic leaders in elections.
Of course, more vital institutions and a more rooted political system could resist longer than Serbian democracy. However, I would argue that no rules can prevent the Hungarian or Polish scenario if there is a robust and popular leader and predominant party. Protests currently going on in Israel are examples of this illiberal tendency that can have long-term consequences, but we see a strong reaction from the opposition and civil society.
What are the key contributions your paper brings to the field?
It represents a comprehensive overview of the democratization process from the institutional perspective, which balances between being too narrow and specific (aimed at an audience interested in institutional rules only) and being over-flexible due to changes in circumstances or volatility of the party system. Additionally, it provides an analytical framework that merges the political and electoral system with dynamic elements of the party system and cleavage structures. It also sheds some light on Serbia, an under-researched state, together with most post-Yugoslav and western Balkans countries, especially when compared to central-European and Baltic states.
Dušan Spasojević is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade. His main fields of interest are political parties, civil society and the post-communist democratization process.